Classes and community

Classes and community

Jessica Spiegel takes helm of Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies

BCHSJS students keep their distance in the time of covid.
BCHSJS students keep their distance in the time of covid.

No one wants to be the new head of school who eliminates the bagel break.

But that’s the position Jessica Spiegel is in as the new principal of the independent Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, which meets at Temple Israel & JCC in Ridgewood. (Ms. Spiegel continues to be Temple Israel’s educational director, a post she has held for three years.)

Ms. Spiegel is not opposed to bagels personally. But when she reconfigured the Sunday classes for the non-denominational school, which draws from 19 synagogues and 18 different North Jersey high schools, she realized that the noshing had to go.

“There’s no more bagels for the moment,” Ms. Spiegel said. You can’t nosh while wearing a mask — and the 55 students coming to classes “are super compliant with masks. Most are well-trained by their schools.”

Instead of bagels, the BCHSJS students who attend in person get a structured break, led by teachers. “They’re playing games,” Ms. Spiegel said. “Sometimes it’s Knockout, sometimes it’s Apple to Apples. Sometimes it’s an encounter where they meet someone and chat for three minutes. It’s a structured social activity. Students are thrilled to have the opportunity and a little help to hang out.”

Because of the pandemic, the school has changed its hours, so that it can meet separately from the Temple Israel’s Hebrew school. Classes this year run from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; last year they were from 9:30 to 12:30.

This has worked out well.

“Because of the later time, our students are awake. They’re bright eyed and bushy tailed. The 9:30 time for teens was a little more challenging,” Ms. Spiegel said.

Jessica Spiegel

Meanwhile, there’s a separate online track with 15 students that is its own community. Students who can’t make it to classroom classes because they’re in quarantine can’t Zoom in to the online ones. “We want students to really engage,” Ms. Spiegel said. “Switching back and forth doesn’t give them the opportunity to do that.” They can, though, jump into the scheduled online social activities, which also includes games.

“We’re finding a way to create community online,” she said. “Zoom is amazing. It gives us so many tools. Teachers can screen share, can show a video — it feels really personal.”

Reconfiguring the school for safety was Ms. Spiegel’s biggest challenge when she started the position in July.

But looking forward, she wants to “create courses that are a supplement and an enhancement to what the students are doing in their regular lives.” The first such class just started. It’s on ethical driving for tenth graders who are taking driving classes at their high schools.”

And beyond the theoretical, she has also arranged for her students to get discounts at local driving schools.

“My vision is to create synergy between their secular and Judaic lives. Each grade will have something that will be useful to their regular life. In the ninth grade we’ll start with social action, because high school kids need volunteer hours.

“I’m really excited about this. There is so much potential and the teens are so engaged.

“It’s important for the teens to have a space where they can have a Jewish conversation around contemporary issues. Our ethics courses are rooted in what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in their lives.

“We’re not a traditional Hebrew school. We don’t focus on Hebrew and tefillah,” she said, using the Hebrew word for prayer. “We can focus on the parts of Jewish life you don’t focus on in Hebrew school. There’s much more emphasis on discussion groups on how Jewish issues connect with your contemporary life.”

As to the courses, “We’re all about choice. If you try a class and it’s not the right class for you, that’s fine. We want to treat the high school students like high school students and they are able to make those choices.”

Courses this semester include Jews in pop culture, the Jewish connections of the Marvel Universe, Jews in the news, and class in the weekly Torah portion that Ms. Spiegel leads that culminates each week in baking a challah that represents the parsha.

As a regional school, students “meet teens from all over Bergen County, which can only be good in the end. It’s always nice to have friends who are a little disconnected from your high school community. It gives you the opportunity to meet all sorts of people who are like you. A lot of our students come from high schools without a lot of Jews. When they get to BCHSJS they are really able to find their community. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to walk into a space and feel you’re part of a group. Socializing is important to us. We really believe the Jewish community is indeed a community, and if there’s not time to make Jewish friends we’re not going to have a Jewish community.”

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